Previously on South Riding: Sarah Burton showed up and got the job of new headmistress at the school. She wasn’t in town five minutes before butting heads with Robert, a local landowner with plenty of problems. Also, the town’s trying to clean up their slums, and some hellfire and brimstone-preaching type is being blackmailed by the local prostitute.
Sarah wanders the school and finds Lydia in one of the classrooms, bent over a book. She asks Lydia what she’s doing there and Lydia explains she’s doing her homework, because it’s too loud and crowded at home. Sarah invites her to her office and hands her a new coat to replace the one she’s wearing, which is too small. She also offers to let Lydia study in her office and suggests the girl could try for Oxford someday. The teacher who was being pushed around by her class last week shows up and asks for a word, so Sarah sends Lydia away. The teacher closes the door after her and says there’s a problem with Midge.
Midge is being driven home in a horse cart by her father, telling him how great school was that day. She’s made friends with a girl named Nancy and they’ve formed a society against that teacher who can’t control her class. Robert asks how Sarah handles that situation and Midge says Sarah gives them a major telling off and strikes terror in their very hearts. Has there been some telling off we haven’t seen? Because that’s not the case as we saw it last week. Robert asks if that doesn’t frighten Midge, and Midge says no, they all worship Sarah. Talk gets serious as Midge wonders if she might be a little crazy, and Robert tells her she mustn’t ever think that. I imagine talk of insanity is touchy around that house.
Robert and Midge arrive at home and find a man there evaluating the property. The bank’s getting ready to foreclose. Later, at tea, Midge asks what the deal is with mortgages. He gives her a quick rundown of what a mortgage means. She starts to fret over the idea of losing the house, and when Robert gently suggests the house is too big for them and they could be fine in one of the cottages, she loses it and cries that the house has to be there, just as it is, for when her mother comes home. Oh dear. This poor guy. What a lot of stress he’s under all the time.
Robert goes to the hospital where Muriel is living and is told by one of the nurses that his wife will never recover. It seems she came down with some kind of postpartum depression and never emerged from it, since she was clearly over the edge to begin with. The nurse tells Robert that the treatment he’s paying for isn’t doing anything, and he’s behind on the bills as it is. She asks if he won’t consider his local county hospital (I guess he’s behind on the bills), but Robert won’t. She suggests a hospital in Manchester he can check out, and she nicely tells him not to worry about her fees, until he can find somewhere else for Murial to go.
Another flashback. Robert, dressed in an army uniform, returns home, grinning happily, and bursts in on his wife lying around in her nightgown, drinking and laughing it up with three other soldiers. She’s surprised to see him and tells him he should have told her he was coming home. Giggling either drunkenly or madly, she invites him to join them. Robert, face falling, demurs, but he does kick the soldiers out. Muriel gets pissed but Robert’s rightly angry too, telling her he’s just come home from war to find his wife swanning around with strange men in her underwear. She pouts that she should be able to have a little fun, while he’s off fighting his “silly old war”. Wow. She calls him beastly and vulgur and runs into the adjoining bedroom, where Robert follows and…rapes her. Jesus. She begs him to stop because she hasn’t got “her thing” in and she knows she mustn’t get pregnant, but it’s too late. I’m going to go curl up in a ball in the corner for a little while now.
In the present, Robert is shown to his wife’s room at the hospital, looking wrecked. He’s clearly been beating himself up for this ever since it happened.
In flashbackland, Isobel (her name’s actually Mrs. Beddows—has that been mentioned yet?) emerges from Muriel’s bedroom and tells Robert that the baby’s a girl, and both mother and daughter are doing well. She warns him that Midge is a bit upset—and judging from the sobs coming from the bedroom, I’d say that’s yet another understatement from this show. Robert enters the room and finds a nurse holding the baby as Muriel yells at her to take the baby away, she doesn’t want to see it.
Meanwhile, at the hospital, Robert enters Muriel’s room just as she’s completing some kind of treatment. He kisses her on the forehead and tells her everything’s all right. She asks if she can come home now and he sadly says it’s not time yet.
Midge is called into Sarah’s office to answer for her behavior towards the teacher. Sarah lectures her for being unkind, asks her to apologize to the teacher, and they’ll let the matter drop. Sarah realizes that something else is bothering Midge and she encourages her to talk. Midge says that some of the other girls have been saying mean things about her father, that he’s going broke. Midge gets herself all worked up, so Sarah leaves her desk and goes to comfort the child. Sarah tells her it’s going to be all right, and she needs to stop imagining things.
Sarah next meets with the crappy teacher, Miss Sigglesthwaite, and tells her Midge has been dealt with, but she’s pretty sure Midge isn’t really the problem. It’s clear the problem is with Miss Sig—Sarah doesn’t even think the class she’s teaching will be able to pass their exams. Miss Sig guesses that Sarah wants to fire her and Sarah counters with the suggestion of early retirement at the end of the term.
Lydia’s father gets ready to go hear about the proposed estate. Lydia wonders if they’ll have this marvelous thing called running water she’s heard of. Dad asks his wife if she’s ok, and she says she’s just tired. I’m sure she is. Poor woman’s clearly not had a break from work and childbearing in years. She and dad kiss and he leaves.
Astell’s selling the estate hard, talking about getting marvelous architects and creating council housing that’ll be the envy of the North. I’m sure it will be. The council housing I’ve seen has always been an architectural triumph. Though I guess it’s still better than living in trailers and shacks with no running water or indoor plumbing. He starts showing the townspeople plans, as one man says he and his family are happy in the shacks. Really? Really, dude? Another man’s all for moving out, as long as he gets a toilet out of the deal. A council member reassures him all the new homes will have toilets. Robert still thinks this isn’t the best time to be building, but Astell’s on a roll and says it totally is–in fact, they should replace the school, too! He calls on Sarah, who agrees that the school buildings suck. The men all scoff at the idea of the girls getting a new school, and Robert informs her that her predecessor thought the buildings were just fine. Nobody’s on board with the idea of a new girls’ school, so they get back to talking about the council housing. Alfred, who’s on the council, is barely paying attention, because his blackmailer’s sitting there, staring at him menacingly. Do we really need this lame and rather predictable subplot?
As the meeting breaks up, Astell catches up with Sarah and invites her out for a drink. At the pub, they chat a bit about how he ended up in South Riding. He came down from Glasgow to help organize the miners. He’s been working in local politics ever since. Talk turns to Robert, and Sarah sighs that she thought she’d won him over with her calf-birth, but apparently not. Astell says that Robert represents the past, and Sarah’s the future. He urges her not to be scared of Robert, because she can do great things in that town.
A group of workmen dig a ditch by the road, while Lydia’s dad sings and, I suppose, supervises them. He leaves off when a woman arrives with snacks for sale, as she clearly does every day. He bargains with her for a curd tart, takes a bite, and tells her how marvelous it is. The two of them have a slightly teasing flirty moment (not for real, though–it’s playful), and then she leaves, and the boys settle down with their snacks.
Alfred arrives at the Shacks and looks around for a bit. Bessie comes out of one of the outhouses and goes running over to him, apologizing for the whole backmail thing. She doesn’t withdraw it, though. Alfred tells her that he just doesn’t have 500 pounds, all he can give her is 50. She seems cool with that, and then invites him inside for a cup of tea and afternoon delight. He refuses for a second, then follows her inside.
Lydia arrives home and finds her baby brother alone inside and her mom gone. None of the other kids know where she is, so Lydia goes looking. Oh, this is not going to go well. She finds her mother passed out in a ditch, the lower part of her skirt covered in blood. Her mom comes around just long enough to ask Lydia to get help. Lydia calls for help, catching Bessie’s attention. Bessie and Alfred emerge and Alfred sends Lydia away with Bessie and enlists some other local men to help get Lydia’s mom inside. They carry her home to bed and Alfred goes to fetch the doctor. Lydia’s not helping at all, crying and screaming and freaking out. Bessie sends her away and attends to Lydia’s mom.
Later, the doctor wraps up the stillborn and hands it to Bessie to go bury. Lydia’s calmed down and just looks sad. The doctor quietly tells her there’s nothing more he can do, because her mom lost too much blood. Lydia goes to her mother and lays down in the bed beside her, crying.
Outside, her father arrives home, all smiley, and notices the doctor and Alfred outside his shack. The smile drops right off his face.
Alfred goes home and reports the story to his wife (presumably leaving out the part about being there to get laid and pay off Bessie). He claims he was just passing by, which his wife realizes is total BS. He says he was there on council business, about the new housing. You can tell she deosn’t believe him, but she lets it pass.
The bell rings and Alfred answers it to find Reg on his doorstep. Reg, naturally, is there to tell him 50 isn’t going to cut it. Reg offers to come inside and talk it over with Alfred’s wife. He gives Alfred 2 days to scare up the cash.
In the Shacks, Lydia sits up all night, staring at her mother, as her siblings sleep.
The next day, the family goes before the council, where Lydia’s dad, hat in hand, and humbly asks for some money to pay for a babysitter during the day, so Lydia can keep going to school. Snaith, the New Deal-loving profiteer, asks if they’re losing income due to his wife’s death. Lydia’s dad says no, but Lydia’s got dreams and all. Mrs. B. says they understand that, but the point of the hand-out is to relieve acute, immediate hardship. Astell quietly asks if they can make an exception, but they refuse. The council turns them down, and Lydia’s dad looks crushed.
Sarah arrives at the Shacks and finds Lydia trying to hang clothes to dry and take care of her young siblings. Sarah tells Lydia she’s sorry about her mother and asks how she’s doing. Lydia shortly says she’s fine. Sarah tells her they’ll be keeping her scholarship open for her, and then hands Lydia a book of poems. Lydia angrily asks how she’s supposed to find time to read them, with her marvelous new life of substitute motherhood and drudgery? She shoves the book back into Sarah’s hand and tells her she’s never going to be able to come back to school. She screams at Sarah to leave.
Sarah takes the case to Mrs. B, who says she’s aware of the family’s situation, but they can only give relief in extreme cases. Sarah argues this is mental cruelty, forcing Lydia to live this way. Mrs. B says that lots of girls have to give up scholarships, and what are they supposed to do when the next one’s mother dies? I can see her point, but is this really such a chronic problem in this town? Is there really a risk of some crazy influx of scholarship girls with dead mothers asking for a poor relief handout? Sarah argues that Lydia should be the exception, because she’s exceptional—which raises the slightly disturbing idea that the less exceptional motherless girls should be left to remain uneducated while they take care of their younger siblings. Sarah thinks Lydia deserves better, but Mrs. B firmly says it’s a sucky situation but them’s the rules. Sarah sniffs that she thought Mrs. B was on her side, and Mrs. B retorts that she is on Sarah’s side, but Sarah needs to ease up and tread a bit more carefully.
Snaith receives an unexpected visitor that evening—Alfred. Snaith politely invites Alfred to sit, but Alfred’s too nervous. He spins a yarn about someone needing a loan of 500 pounds to tide them over to avoid a bank foreclosure on their property. Snaith remarks that that’s a lot of money, but he might be able to help. He chats a bit about property, and how its value can change, and specifically brings up the Wastes, which is going for a song now but’ll rise in value as soon as the council starts building there. Hmm.
Next, Alfred’s got Bessie and Reg in his car and is driving them out to the Wastes. Reg thinks Alfred’s going to kill them both and leave the bodies there. Not both, Reg, just you. Sadly, no, he’s there to suggest they invest their ill-gotten gains in the property. Reg isn’t sure, but Alfred pushes it, saying their money would double, and then they could pay him that 500 pounds back. Why should they do that? Why wouldn’t they just keep the whole 1000?
At school, one of the girls shows Midge and a crowd of other students a cartoon she’s done of Miss Sig. She dares Midge to do a drawing of her own, but Midge is afraid of getting into trouble. Miss Sig shows up and starts writing on the board, and one of the girls starts making fun of her. She looks like she’s about to cry but keeps writing. Meanwhile, Midge is drawing a cartoon of her own in her notebook. Another girl teases her too, and Sig grabs her ruler and starts prowling the aisles. She spots Midge’s drawing, because like an idiot, Midge just left the notebook open to that page. Midge gets cheeky with her, and Sig starts yelling at her, as Midge giggles and gives her more lip, so Sig smacks her across the face with the ruler, cutting her across the cheek.
Ok, I have to ask: what’s the deal with the way Midge is being portrayed? When we first met her, she was having a full-on meltdown because her father was a little late coming home from a meeting. She was terrified and fairly unstable, but she shows up at school and is apparently not only magically cured of all that, but she’s also turned into a bold, nasty little creature? What’s up here?
All right, back to the show. Sig walks out of the classroom, goes right to Sarah’s office, and resigns, admitting she assaulted Midge.
Sarah takes Midge home, where Robert takes a look at the cut. Sarah nervously tells him that she’s accepted Sig’s resignation. Midge whimpers that it was all her fault. “I daresay it was,” he says. He tells her she’ll survive, gives her a kiss on the forehead, and sends her to her room. Sarah admits that she feels responsible, because she knew Sig was on the edge. Robert reassures her that he’s sure she did her best. Sarah’s glad he’s taking it so well, since they haven’t really been seeing eye to eye. He says that’s true, but Midge likes her. He offers her a drink and they settle down to chat. Sarah asks if Midge has always been ‘exciteable’. Robert says yes, because she takes after her mom. Oh dear. Sarah asks how long ago Muriel died and Robert confesses she’s not dead. Sarah apologizes for intruding and he tells her it’s fine, he just prefers not to talk about it.
Mrs. B comes in and interrupts the discussion, explaining she was “at Yarrow, visiting.” I’m guessing Yarrow’s the place where Muriel’s stashed. Sarah excuses herself as Mrs. B takes a seat, smiling a little tensely.
Alfred’s at the pub, where he runs into Reg and Bessie, who are surprised to see him there, since he’s supposed to be a teetotaler. Alfred asks about the investment and Reg says they went ahead and bought the parcel of land, and then sold it for 750. Alfred stupidly asks for his 500 back, and just like I thought, Reg keeps it. Alfred’s shocked that the people who blackmailed him would be so devious.
The girls sing Christmas carols at the school, accompanied by the school governors. Except for Alfred, who looks sick. After the little concert, he catches up with the property surveyor who was sniffing around Robert’s place and asks if it’s true the land around the Wastes is now going for 100 pounds an acre. It is. The surveyor, Drew, urges him to buy the land now.
Back inside, the governors, teachers, and Sarah have a holiday drink and discuss Christmas plans. Sarah’s going to be swinging by Manchester to shop, then spending the holidays with her sister. Mrs. B urges her to buy something nice for herself, because she’s made a good start at the school, and the governors are pleased with her.
In Manchester, Sarah buys a gift of lingerie for her sister and makes her way to her hotel, where she runs into Robert. He asks what she’s doing there and she explains she’s en route to her sister’s. He invites her for a drink and she accepts.
At the bar, she asks what brings him to Manchester and he says he’s looking for a job. He and Midge may have to sell the house and move. Sarah’s sorry to hear it. He suggests they find another topic, so she asks about his wife. Way to cheer up the conversation, Sarah. For those interested: he and Muriel met at a country house weekend, where he was a guest of a guest. It was love at first sight, but she was a lord’s daughter, and the family looked down on gentleman farmer Robert, so they eloped. And now she’s in a mental institution. And he’s still in love with her. He also blames himself for ruining her life. Since they’re having A Moment, Sarah asks him to join her for dinner.
Later, after they’ve changed, we have a totally cliché: wow, she’s hot coming down the stairs in her slinky dress! moment before they go to a restaurant where they swill champagne and talk. Isn’t he hard up for money? Is she really that well paid, as headmistress of a crappy girls’ school in Yorkshire? After talking horses for a while, she urges him to dance with her, and he accepts. Cue the montage of them having all sorts of fun, drinking, dancing, and laughing. They slow dance, and Robert starts flashing back to dancing with his wife, back in the day. The band recalls him to reality by saying goodnight—he and Sarah and a few other couples have closed the place down. Robert figures that’s it for the night, but Sarah propositions him, suggesting a one-night stand. Classy. And he’s all for it, because for some reason, these two like each other now. Whatever. I’ve given up looking for any depth in this film. It’s a total meringue.
In her room, quirky music cues up as Sarah unwraps the underwear she bought her sister and puts it on herself. She jumps into bed and waits a few seconds for Robert to show. She invites him into the bed, but he can’t even seem to look at her, and he drops into a chair shaking. Sarah asks if he’s ok and he tells her he’ll be fine, but then he unexpectedly lurches out of the chair and falls to the floor, completely freaking Sarah out. He gasps that he needs ammonium nitrate (I think), which is in his coat pocket in his room. She finds his key, throws on a robe, and goes down to his room to find what he needs. She returns with it and hands it over—it looks like some capsule that he breaks and breathes in. It takes two of them for him to get right again. Sarah asks if there’s anything else she can do and he tells her there isn’t, he just doesn’t want her to leave him alone. She promises not to and they lie back in bed together. Very early the following morning, he gets up and heads back down to his room, despite her entreaties to stay. He thanks her for her help, and leaves. Sarah closes the door after him and goes back to her bed to cry. Why? Is she in love with him (magically? For no reason?)? Does he remind her of her fiancé? Oh, why am I bothering to ask?